Lush green lawns, majestic colonial buildings, gleaming race horses, a state-of-the-art amphitheatre, a big, deserted library, a sprawling residential colony, picturesque cricket pavilions, squash courts, basketball courts, swimming pools and tennis courts, and handsome young boys dressed in traditional turbans – this is Aitchison College, Lahore, Pakistan’s most prestigious boys’ school located in the heart of the city, occupying a long stretch of its main artery, The Mall Road. The school is built on a far greater expanse of land than the Governor’s residence just a couple of miles down the road – a building at the receiving end of a great deal of heated attention from Imran Khan, who feels this prime location can be put to better use – what exactly that may be he hasn’t been able to say yet, though there have been vague promises of a library or a sports complex. What is more clear, however, is that Khan views the Governor’s House as a symbol of Pakistan’s corrupt VIP culture, and a tearing down of its walls a triumph of the common man over the grand and the exclusionary. It is odd then that he doesn’t extend the same principle to his alma mater.
The prime land Aitchison College is built on was appropriated by the British for the education of the sons of local nawabs, and ever since has been made available to similarly pedigreed young boys generation after generation. Its demographic has seen some change with the advent of more modern times, thanks to a merit-based admissions system deployed to bring in a much-needed boost to O and A-Level grades that the school needs to maintain its air of distinction. At the interview stage, however, sons of feudals, industrialists, Army Generals, bureaucrats and assorted members of the country’s elite are slipped in to maintain a ‘healthy mix’.
Widely considered to be a private school, it is actually a public one, meaning it belongs to no one individual or group of individuals. It is run by a board of governors headed by the Governor of Punjab who is responsible for key decisions such as the appointment of the school Principal, making it similar to semi-government institutions like the Punjab University whose Vice Chancellor is also appointed by the Governor. This makes it particularly susceptible to political admissions and appointments, leading to a majority of Aitchison Principals being political appointees with no background in teaching or educational management. The VIP culture ingrained in key players ensures that no teacher from within the school is ever considered for the top post.
An interesting phenomenon of the Aitchison legacy is the ‘Campus School’. This is a school within the school where children of the ‘lower staff’ go to be taught subjects that prepare them for their Matric exams, a local system of examination that has long since been abolished at Aitchison. Every morning children of peons, gardeners, clerical staff and custodians who reside in living quarters within the sprawling campus walk to a small building in a corner of the main school to be taught their alif bay pays. None of these children are allowed access to any sporting facility on campus. Lest you think the students and administration of the school are some caricatures of the callous rich: the boys from the main school are taught the importance of charity by allowing a march past from the boys and girls of the campus school on Aitchison’s Sports Day. This piece of benevolence is accepted by all present without a grain of irony or discomfort.
In a city with few publicly accessible sporting facilities for the young, Aitchison’s beautifully maintained lawns could provide great training grounds after school hours. If that is too utopian, at least the apartheid of the poor who reside within its sprawling campus needs to end. But this blatant example of VIP culture is disregarded by both Imran Khan and his followers, many of whom no doubt benefit greatly from the co-dependency upon which the edifice of our VIP culture is built. It is simple to blame politicians alone, but institutions that lay bare the nexus between all the elite classes in our society seem to be harder to criticize and do something about.
Dear Mr. Khan, next time you are in Lahore, let us also hear you speak about this aspect of our entrenched VIP culture, one you are very much a part of.
Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.